Stop Stealing Ideas

I’ve seen it happen a few times and I’ve heard stories of many other instances. Every once in a while, a brand initiates an RFP only to hijack ideas from agencies without any plans to ever hire one of the them or pay them for their ideas.

New business is one of the life bloods of agency folks, so we get excited at the opportunity to pitch a new client. But the RFP process is a very vulnerable time for agencies.

People – junior, mid-level and senior – spend hours pouring through research and background info to develop a killer strategy and rock solid tactics. And they do this on top of their current client work, which means they’re giving up evenings and, often times, weekends for the pitch.

Sure it sucks to lose a pitch after all the hard work that goes into it. But that’s part of life. Having your ideas stolen, though, is ridiculous. Whether the culprit *suddenly* realizes it loves the incumbent agency it spoke so harshly about during the entire process or slinks away without hiring any of the agencies in review and cherry picks from the spectrum of free ideas to execute in house, it’s unethical.

It also completely disrespects the true value of both creative ideas and the time and sacrifice of developing those ideas.

Older colleagues have always just shrugged their shoulders and said something like, “that’s the risk you take with new business” when I’ve asked about it. Is that an acceptable answer? Can anything be done to limit this practice?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Agencies that make it to the final rounds of a pitch get a flat fee as compensation for their ideas.
  • If a brand doesn’t choose an agency, but likes a particular idea it presented, it could compensate the agency by providing some fees for the idea.
  • Create a public blacklist of brands who have hijacked ideas. The list would be governed by a third party – say PRSA, for example – that would investigate and confirm the claim before posting.

Of course the last option is a bit dangerous. I doubt I’d actually vote for that one. But I do think this is something we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders about any more, especially given the current economic state and the fact that more brands are cutting back on marketing budgets. Those circumstances increase the likelihood that a few misfits will venture down the path of looking to get more for less – or for free.

Would any of those ideas help? Do you have a suggestion to toss in the pot?

*Image by Saxon Moseley.

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7 responses to “Stop Stealing Ideas

  1. David, this completely sucks. I have actually found myself in this position quite a bit recently. The circumstances seem a bit different for me though–I usually get the, “can we take you to lunch and pick your brain a bit?”–which ultimately ends of being a free hour of consulting. I spit out my creative ideas and strategies, which is great for them but sucks for me because I leave feeling used and without gaining any actual business. I have even had people ask me if we could do it a second or third time! I need to learn how to give them just enough so that they leave wanting more of my ideas.

    This has been a struggle for me, and in part I blame myself, but how far should I go to without risking losing business to “charitably lunches,” which at some point will be an entry point for me. I am very young and fresh out of college, but at the same time want to show what kinds of ideas I can bring to the table, but not at the expense of my time and talent, (not to sound arrogant, but I think anyone would feel the same way). So what do I do? It’s a very fine line for me, and I am still getting a feel for when who may be serious about next steps, and who is just taking advantage. This has been my biggest challenge thus far.

    I know this was a bit of a rant and rave about my personal frustrations, but I think your point is very important, especially, as you said, during a time when everyone is cutting their marketing budgets. There should be line drawn, but what that is? I have no idea. My traditional philosophy is that, if someone or some company is going steal my ideas, then ultimately they are not the type of people I want to work with anyway. The bottom line however, the process and work it takes to get there can be exhausting! So how can we ensure that our hard work pays off? Or is that just a risk we take and time/energy we should expect to exhaust in this business?


  2. Two thoughts from a jaded veteran:

    1) We’ve had some success asking for fees upfront (your first idea) for our strategic and creative thinking. Asking for a fee imbues your ideas and the work it takes to generate them with value. Clients who don’t consider or respect this may not turn out to be good clients. The fee doesn’t have to cover all of your time, but should be high enough to let them know you’re serious. It’s almost a test. But you have to be prepared to walk away.

    2) You may want to mark all of your materials boldly with a copyright claim, “(C) 2008 Agency, Inc. All rights reserved.” This serves as a warning and may dissuade them from stealing. May not help, but it can’t hurt.

    Having been through your experience numerous times, I don’t think we should stand for it professionally. It devalues what we do.

    To Nicole’s point, I think the trick over lunch is to ask them lots of questions, take notes, and tease them with our capabilities, our process, our case studies, our pricing, etc., without actually solving their problem for them.

    Sorry to hear your news.

  3. David, this is a great post. Believe it or not, this kind of thing happens in the non-profit world too, and it’s especially slimey when it does. Not too long ago, a friend poured out her creative ideas to a talent agency rep in the hopes of snagging a celeb, only to get nothing and see her entire creative idea used to a “t” on a very popular viewer voting talent show . I do think there is something to be said for an inside buzz about which companies are unethical, whether it is for stealing creative ideas, fudging their balance sheets and misleading shareholders, or falsely advertising products that are harmful to babies.

    Unethical companies don’t play fair, and isn’t it time someone held them accountable?

    Maybe I haven’t gotten quite enough sleep or I’m letting it all hang out because it’s Halloween, but those are my two cents, because I’m tired of seeing the nice guys get steamrolled.

  4. In (print) journalism circles, especially for national circulations, it is common for editors to pay a fee for a story idea after receiving a pitch that they either want to assign in-house or to a different freelancer.

    Something to think about.

  5. Great topic of discussion David. I really like your idea on the flat fees as compensation for being a finalist. It gets particularly tough when small or mid-size agencies get to the stage where they can battle in the RFP process with bigger agencies since larger agencies obviously have more manpower and time to devote to the process.

    It can be quite a time/expense/morale drain on a firm to go through a big RFP process only to find that a potential client has returned to an incumbent firm or worse, opted to “not go with a firm at this time”. Yikes, you’re welcome for the free plan.

    It’s obviously a case-by-case basis, but I do think asking for a fee up front is completely reasonable, especially if you know the potential client is only looking at a couple firms. Kirk, great point as well on the copyright as a deterrent.

  6. @nicole – that’s tough. I think Kirk had some good advice. you can often give enough to whet the appetite without giving away the whole cow.

    @kirk – good ideas! interesting to hear you’ve had some receptive folks on the pay something up front idea.

    @bettina – that…is…ridiculous. how do some people sleep at night?

  7. I’m a small fish in a big pond. Getting a chance to submit a proposal comes few & far between. I am more often left with the “build it, they will come” approach, and try to leave the unique specifics out of the demo. Several of these demo/ideas have been “acquired” (and I was excluded). I can laugh (while I cry a bit) knowing they didn’t quite get it right, but it is still frustrating/maddening. I keep trying though. Hopefully this is admirable & sportsman like, not Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    Rather than a blacklist, I would like to see companies work hard to be included on a list of Ethical & honest businesses.

    Kinda like the what the GoodHousekeeping seal of approval once was.

    … I would like to do business with you, but you are not listed on Ethical/Truthful&HonestdotBiz … why not?

    This is (believe it or not) my first visit to your blog. Unusual for me top chime in so quickly … look forward to reading more of your writing.

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